Healthy school lunch program in danger

10 Cents a Meal for Michigan’s Kids & Farms, a nationally recognized program that provides healthy, nutrient-dense, locally grown food in school cafeteria meals, was planned by the legislature to move beyond pilot status and go statewide with a $2 million allocation in the School Aid Budget.

But the funding — which was set to pass in a supplemental budget bill in mid-March and could have been used for summer meals too — was pulled back at the last minute because schools were being closed statewide. Now, funding for the program is endangered because of the devastating state budget crisis.

Yet, food service directors say, the funding for 10 Cents is needed now more than ever as families face financial hardships, schools work to feed children outside of the school setting, and national food supplies falter.

“Instead of feeding children fresh produce, we face the prospect of Michigan agricultural products rotting on the ground if farmers lose markets in this crisis,” said Sara Simmerman, legislative chair of the School Nutrition Association of Michigan (SNAM) and a school food service director in Oakland County.

We must do these four things in the COVID-19 crisis, food service directors and other advocates say, and 10 Cents a Meal does all four:

1) Provide nutritious food for our children.

2) Invest in Michigan’s hard-hit economy and farms.

3) Strengthen Michigan’s local food supply chains.

4) Leverage as many federal dollars to Michigan as possible. Schools rely on National School Lunch dollars as their match for state 10 Cents grants.

With school closures, districts across the state are working tirelessly to ensure children remain fed. The crisis has shined a spotlight on the essential role that school food service staff play in feeding our children. They are on the front lines.

One food service director for two smaller Muskegon County districts said he typically serves only 2,000 meals a week in summer, but this summer he expects to serve 22,000 a week because of the crisis. Detroit Public Schools Community District, meanwhile, just passed the 1 million mark in meals provided to children to eat at home during the crisis.

The food service director of a rural, northwest Michigan school said cash that might have gone for fresh produce instead must go now to buy packaging for meals distributed to children at home

“We are doing this at a loss,” said Sara Simmerman of SNAM and Oakland County’s Huron Valley Schools. “We can’t spend money on fresh fruits and vegetables. We just don’t have it. We will have to go to USDA canned fruits and vegetables. I know for sure my program, along with other school food and nutrition programs throughout Michigan, will be facing increased costs and reduced revenue. I will have to pick and choose the quality of the food my children will be able to have.”

10 Cents a Meal also provides a critical market to Michigan farmers because it directs school lunch spending to the local farm economy, and it doubles the state’s investment because it is an incentive match grant. Michigan’s farmers are facing major market losses, with the closures or delays of farmers markets, restaurants, and more.

Fifty-seven school districts used money from 10 Cents a Meal in 2018–2019 to improve the nutritional quality and diversity of fruits and vegetables in school meals. Schools are where children get up to two meals a day and can establish healthy eating habits for a lifetime—helping solve the diet-related diseases that are plaguing our nation and driving up the cost of health care.

The twin pillars on which the program stands—childhood health and farm family economic stability—have led to strong bipartisan support. 10 Cents, for example, was included in the initial 2019–2020 budgets of both the Republican legislature and the governor. Gov. Whitmer subsequently included 10 Cents in 147 line item vetoes, caught in the crossfire of budget debates over other issues such as road funding. However, the governor included it again in her 2020-2021 budget.

Those who have signed up as 10 Cents supporters or provided statements of support include Michigan Farm Bureau, Michigan Farmers Union, Michigan Food and Farming Systems, the School Nutrition Association of Michigan, the Michigan Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Healthy Kids-Healthy Michigan, Michigan League for Public Policy, Detroit Food Policy Council, and school districts ranging from those in the Detroit region to the state’s Upper Peninsula, both regions where schools were hoping for their first opportunity to apply for the grant this year if it became available statewide.

See the growing supporter list

See the letter of support from the School Nutrition Association of Michigan, the professional organization of school food service directors

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